Secretary of State John F. Kerry extended his sweep through a reeling Iraq Tuesday, stopping in the northern city of Irbil, where a top powerful Kurdish political leader warned that recent advance of Sunni extremists has created “a new reality and a new Iraq.”
The comments by Kurdish Regional President Massoud Barzani, who met with Mr. Kerry a day after he visited Baghdad, prompted new speculation that Iraq’s Kurds may be push for independence from the nation’s bitterly divided Sunni and Shiite Arab populations.
Kurdish militias have seized control of key areas of northern Iraq in response to the surge by Sunni extremists. Mr. Barzani did not specify exactly what he meant in referring to a “new Iraq,” according to the Associated Press, which reported on the Kurdish leader’s remarks.
Without the cooperation of the Kurdish militias, who now control the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Washington’s push for a new cross-sectarian government in Baghdad could face significant hurdles in the coming days.
The United States, along with Turkey, which borders Iraq to the north and also has a large Kurdish population, have long opposed the idea of an independent state for the region’s Kurds, and Mr. Kerry appeared to push that message on Mr. Barzani Tuesday.
“A united Iraq is a stronger Iraq, and our policy is to respect the territorial integrity of Iraq as a whole,” Mr. Kerry said, according to the transcript of an NBC interview posted on the State Department’s website.
Mr. Kerry said he was confident that, despite what Mr. Barzani may have said publicly, the Kurdish leadership will work with the other factions in Baghdad to hold Iraq together. “At this moment, he is going to participate in the government-formation process,” Mr. Kerry said. “He is committed to trying to help yet again to find a means of having a unity government.”
The meeting between Mr. Kerry and Mr. Barzani in Irbil came a day after Mr. Kerry made a surprise visit to Baghdad to push a message of inclusion on leaders of Iraq’s Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions to confront what he called an “existential threat” to the country.
Mr. Kerry called on the bitterly divided factions to honor commitments to seat a new Iraqi parliament next week before a burgeoning Sunni insurgency — which has become aligned with al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during recent weeks — crushes any hope for a lasting peace in Iraq.